Ableton Live: Chopping beats MPC style

Get your groove on with Rory Dow as he taps you through the process of chopping up beats in Ableton Live MPC-style.  

The influence of the MPC sampler is hard to measure. It is widely considered to be the instrument of choice for sample slicing and has measurably contributed to shaping entire genres of music, most notably hip-hop, but also drum and bass and to a lesser extent house and techno.

With this in mind we thought it might be fun to make an article on how to recreate MPC slicing techniques in Ableton Live. Live has all the tools you need, so if you've ever wondered if you can get that famous groove “in the box” then read on.

Slicing a beat

First of all, let's start with a drum loop. Here is an example drum loop that I'm going to work with in this tutorial:

A slowish funk loop made in FXpansion's BFD2 which we're going to hip-hop-ify!

It helps if your original loop is trimmed to exact bars although not 100% necessary. Import the loop into an audio track in either Session View or Arrangement View then right click on the clip and select “Slice To New MIDI Track”.

Slice to New MIDI Track

Any audio clip can be sliced using Live's slicing tool.

A dialog box will appear with two options. For now, we want to leave these at the defaults - “Create one slice per transient” and “Slicing Preset: Built-in”. It is outside of the scope of this article, but I do recommend investigating these two options further as some very powerful options lie within. 

Slice to New MIDI Track default options

For slicing drum loops, the default options in Live's “Slice to new MIDI track” function are perfect.

When you click the OK button a series of events will take place:

  • a new midi track will be created
  • a Drum Rack will be placed on the midi track
  • the Drum Rack will be filled with the slices from our loop
  • a midi clip will be placed on the track which will play back our slices perfectly

Drum Rack

The Drum Rack contains the drum loop, sliced and ready to remix.

Live leaves the entire drum loop in each Drum Rack cell. The slices are created using the cell's start and end points, which makes tweaking the slices very simple because they aren't permanently cropped. The use of Drum Racks also allows for editing of filter settings, amp envelopes, pitch envelopes and so on.

Remixing the drum loop

Now the fun begins! With the slices neatly mapped we can start to re-arrange our loop. If you have a 4x4 16 Pad controller such as an Akai MPD or Korg padKontrol then that can help with the authentic feel of playing back the samples in real-time, but it's by no means necessary. For our audio examples here, I programmed using the mouse.

Get a beat going that you like the sound of. It doesn't have to be perfect at this stage. I'm generalizing wildly here but most hip hop beats use perhaps 6 or 8 slices from their original drum loop. Here's how my drum loop looks after remixing:

The new drum loop

The remixed loop. Note just how many slices aren't being used. Simplicity is the key to a good hip-hop groove.

Giving your MIDI that legendary swing

Nailing that MPC swing is down to quantization and groove. We're going to use Live's quantization functions to emulate the MPCs now legendary swing. Firstly, if you haven't already, you'll need to quantize the MIDI part. With the part selected, hit Command-Shift-U or Control-Shift-U to open the Quantize options.

Live's quantize options

Live's Quantize Options.

You'll probably want to quantize to either 1/16 or 1/32 at a strength of 100%. At this stage your drum loop will probably sound a little robotic, but we're not done yet. The MIDI is quantized but we haven't injected the swing yet.

With the Clip Overview open, head to the Clip View Properties. You'll see the magic word, “Groove”. Next to it is a hot-swap button.

Clip View Properties

The Clip View gives us access to the groove browser. 

Hit the hot-swap button and the Live browser will open in the Grooves folder. You'll see a folder called “MPC”. Open it up and pick a groove.

Live's MPC groove templates

Live includes a library of different groove templates including, rather conveniently, MPC grooves.

Some experimentation might be in order to get the right groove. I've found that the “MPC 16 Swing” grooves give the most authentic feel, and for our example here, I've used “MPC 16 Swing-61.agr”. Double click on your chosen swing preset to apply it to the clip.

Play back the clip and you should immediately notice the difference. You may want to hit the hot-swap button again and try different grooves. Here is our example loop before and after the groove template is applied:

Pre groove : 

Post groove : 

TIP: If you select Commit you can then print the swing to the MIDI notes in the clip itself. You'll now be able to see exactly how the swing effects the velocity and timing of the sequence.

I also added a little EQ and compression to our loop. The MPC machines have a tendency to colour the sound a little by enhancing the bottom end and squashing the signal a little. Obviously, what sounds good will depend entirely on your original source material.

Final tip

A great deal of hip hop music is written entirely in the MPC. As such basslines and non-drum musical content is often given the same slice-remix-quantize-groove treatment as the drums. As a result, the entire song swings in a wonderful way. Here's our drum loop with an added guitar which has also been sliced and quantized with the same groove template we used on the drums:

The start of something groovy!

You can hear that the guitar sits perfectly with the drums due to the heavy groove. Add a bassline, get a favourite MC friend to spit a few bars and we might just have the beginnings of something special.

MPCs are amazing instruments that have inspired generations of musicians and whilst there's no replacement for the real thing, Ableton Live can still recreate that legendary swing and, at least partially, the workflow. So go forth and groove!

Rory Dow is a musician, sound designer and writer. He spent 15 years as a freelance musician writing for television before side-stepping into music software production. The majority of his work is taken up as a trainer and sound designer for London-based software company FXpansion but he also likes to write music and articles and is a ... Read More


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